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Coronavirus infection rate still too high for lockdown restrictions to be lifted, insist Stormont leaders

Northern Ireland's coronavirus infection rate remains too high to lift lockdown restrictions, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill have said.

The First and Deputy First Ministers stressed that the Executive was united on the need to maintain the regulations.

They said that the reproductive rate (R0) for the virus here - the number of people an infected person infects - was 0.8, and must fall before restrictions could be eased.

The total number of coronavirus deaths locally is now 422, up four on Wednesday.

Total confirmed cases rose to 3,984 yesterday, up 50 on the previous day.

The Executive has extended the current regulations enforcing social distancing for another three weeks. Mrs Foster said that there may only be "minor" adjustments to the rules next week.

Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy had said he was hopeful that a roadmap plan out of lockdown could be announced yesterday.

But the First Minister and Deputy First Minister said that the Executive needed to spend more time on the blueprint to ensure they got it right.

Mrs Foster said that Northern Ireland's infection rate remained higher than some areas in England.

"It is not yet as far below one as we would like it to be," she told the daily Covid-19 briefing at Stormont.

"And we recognise that our approach needs to be flexible and adaptable to change.

"Next week we will consider a number of minor adjustments to the restrictions, and indeed to their interpretation."

Mrs Foster warned that those showing complacency about lockdown were lengthening the time before people could return to normal life.

"If that breaks down, you are prolonging the imposition of these regulations rather than moving to the future," she added.

Mrs O'Neill said the focus had to be on preventing a second wave of coronavirus.

She said she knew some people would be "disappointed" by the announcement, but we were still on a "knife-edge" in efforts to suppress the disease. "We're still very much in the response (stage), we're still in the fightback against Covid-19 but we're also in the space where we're planning for the recovery," she said.

"And that's the light at the end of the tunnel, which we know that everybody wants to be able to see. So, we reviewed all the regulations, we reviewed everything that we've been asking you to do right now. And we did that based on the scientific evidence that was available to us and all the medical evidence."

Amidst media speculation that Boris Johnson is planning to change the emphasis of Government messaging away from staying at home, Mrs O'Neill said that would still remain the line here.

"The message should be stay at home, the message is stay at home and that needs to continue here and there can be no room for confusion," she said.

Mrs Foster suggested that some media outlets had "exaggerated" what the Prime Minister would announce on Sunday, and she believed he would not significantly shift Downing Street's messaging.

Speaking on the eve of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the First Minister warned the public against celebrating with others.

"The best way we can honour those in World War Two who fought for freedom and won, the best way we can honour those who are fighting for us today on the health front line, is to stay at home as much as possible," she said.

"Our world is a long way away from its VE Day in the fight against coronavirus, and compared to the sacrifices asked of our parents and grandparents, what is being asked of us now is very small, but is hugely important."

When asked about checks or restrictions on flights from London arriving in Northern Ireland, Mrs Foster said that London's 0.5 R0 was actually lower than ours because they had been ahead of us on the spread of the virus initially.

She said that Ireland and Britain were part of a common travel area so people could move freely in the British Isles even post-Brexit.

Meanwhile, a contact tracing app may be made available to people living in Northern Ireland as part of an all-island approach to tackling Covid-19, the Republic's Health Minister has said.

It will only be available on smartphones and will use Bluetooth technology.

Simon Harris told the Dail: "It is my intention that it would of course be available to residents in Northern Ireland through the UK Apple Store."

The Republic's coronavirus death toll rose yesterday to 1,403 after a further 29 fatalities were announced by officials.

The UK's coronavirus death toll has risen to 30,615, an increase of 539 on the previous day. The number includes those who have passed away in hospitals as well as in care homes and in the community.

Belfast Telegraph